Tower Gardens: What would make you want to spend more time here?

Tower Gardens in 1905. With thanks to York Explore.

Tower Gardens walk around: 3rd February 2-4pm

We ran the first of our post-masterplan ideas events last Saturday, exploring uses and landscaping of Tower Gardens.

You can see the masterplan ideas for Tower Gardens here and people’s responses to them during the engagement period here. The aim of these follow up events is to explore the issues further and particularly openly discuss any differences and points of disagreement. This follows a discussion the week before last with Dave Meigh who looks after parks for the council.

There were 13 of us, a mixture of people living very close to Tower Gardens, a representative of Treemendous and a York resident who also works as a landscape designer. Before and afterwards we also spoke to the Tower Vue Café on Tower Street and Dyls café on Skeldergate Bridge.

The situation now… How is Tower Gardens currently used?
We began by reflecting on current uses. Here there was a bit of difference in emphasis. Some people thought that Tower Gardens was often used already, whereas others felt there was scope for much more use in the future:

‘Tower Gardens is already well used. Today we are not seeing Tower Gardens at its best. But in the summer, people have picnics and use it as a lovely quiet place to spend time’.

‘I cycle through it currently, park my bike and meet people to go on my favourite walk in York from here up New Walk to the Millennium bridge and back along the other side of the river’.

‘It is a summer place more than a winter place, at the moment it is not that attractive a place to spend time, I tend to just walk through’.

‘I run through here and there is currently nowhere to stop, I’d like it to be a place where we can slow down, meander through, for picnics’.

‘I live around the corner and I come here 2 or 3 times a day’.

‘I walk from my house to my office’.

‘Tower Gardens is the first open place that coach parties come to. If this is “Welcome to York” then it is disgraceful’.

‘I walk my dog here four times a day’

‘I come here to play with my granddaughter. We enjoy the trees. I notice school parties, trying to have lunch, though there is not enough seating for that’.

We then moved on to address one of major challenges for Tower Gardens, that it regularly floods. Some people did not see this as a major issue:

‘The grass is not look good now but it does recover over the year’.

For other people, the issue of flood recovery was felt to be an issue that did need to be actively addressed. The aim being that planting or landscaping could be developed that would make recovery and cleaning up after floods quicker and easier.

‘Foot and Cycle path being raised rather than in a dip sounds like an obvious first step’ (via Facebook).

For some this meant more hard surfaces, the perception being it is easier to clean of silt. Others countered this idea:

‘People are saying there is an issue with draining and that the silting is causing problems, but I disagree. The drainage is fine and there are no standing puddles of water’.

‘The damage to the soil actually happens when the council comes along with pressure hoses to blast the silt off’.

The others were concerned that sacrificing further grass would have a negative effect and increase flooding further downstream:

Please can we avoid creating more impermeable surfaces? The extra run-off from each incremental decision like this adds to the speed at which the rivers in York rise. (via Facebook)

Does anyone have the stats on exactly which days of the year the gardens have flooded? Trees can be very useful at ‘drinking’ the water from wet ground and transpiring it from their leaves – but only if the trees are in leaf of course! But if some of the flooding instances have been in Sept-October for example, cutting back trees would lead to wetter ground overall. (via Facebook)

In terms of ways of accepting there was an issue with the green areas recovering from floods, there were some in favour of more hard surfaces:

There is a picture online in the library of Tower Gardens and Kings Staithe that looks like the South Bank in London, with lights. The edge of Tower Gardens is hard and maintained’.

‘There was discussion of the trees close to the edge and whether they should be cleared. Or could they be saved by with brick encasement?’

Others thought there was an issue but wondered how green could be maintained:

‘Could the green spaces be raised so they are protected from small scale floods?’

‘Otherwise I am all in favour of garden planting reflecting the conditions you have rather than trying to fight against it. For Beth Chatto that has meant selecting dry loving plants, whereas here we should maybe be planting a ‘bog garden’ area with flag irises etc and having some signage educating people on the conditions and reasons for planting’. (via facebook)

‘I would not want to see more concrete’.

‘I use it as a green space and I would not want to see any loss of grass in favour of more paving. The paving does not work well at the moment, any mud or frost and it becomes dangerously slippery’.

‘The clue is in the name, Tower Gardens, it needs to feel more like gardens’.

The geese (not for the first in the My Castle Gateway conversations!) were raised as an issue:

‘I’m not against wildlife but soon this place will be covered by geese and goose shit.’

Tower Gardens trees: Lime, Plane and Japanese Elm being most numerous.

John Cossham joined the discussions representing Treemendous, who motto is the ‘right tree in the right place’. John thought Tower Gardens needed more active tree management:

‘You can see which trees have been managed here – one where the bough has been chopped and there are lots of small branches growing out. Tree management is important as it increases the longevity of trees and it also increases safety as sometime branches do fall off. However, the trees near the edge have not been managed. There is a real value in mature trees’.

We briefly discussed ‘Tree Protection Orders’ but it was felt they are not relevant for two different reason, Tower Gardens is a Conservation Area and there for any work on trees requires 6 weeks notice and TPOs are not used on trees owned by the Council.

The question of tree management related to this issue of flood recovery as there was a perception from some that the shading of the trees prevented the grass recovering from floods.

‘I wonder if there were fewer trees whether that would make it greener.’

‘We need facts and figures. Does there need to be better management of the tree system. The gardens need to look lovely, the worse they look the more abuse of the gardens will happen’.

Yet there was a sense from some that simply taking trees out might not be the best way forward and a more incremental approach was proposed:

‘Would a better approach be to look at each tree that dies over time and consider whether it should be replaced rather than active thinning now’.

‘There should be natural wastage approach, if you take out trees the Council will get a lot of opposition, I think rightly. But if diseased or dying anyway, then give a chance to then make a decision’.

‘We could instead look to pollarding and pruning’.

‘We could do a shade analysis over a year’

There was also a discussion about tree species and light levels, would different species allow greater sunlight to fall onto the grass.

We also discussed putting further trees in around the edge of the park:

‘We are surrounded by traffic, barrier it won’t reduce sound but it could reduce the visual impact of traffic coming of the bridge’.

Activities and Cafes
An area for discussion was the kind of activities to be encouraged in Tower Gardens. At the moment there is Dyls café and the Arts Barge will be on the bank of Tower Gardens. Christian from the Arts Barge explained:

‘There will be a path to the moorings and then two wings that will enable the barge to move with water levels. There will be a lift down into the Barge. When the park is flooded – in fact in advance of that – we accept that there will be no access to the barge’.

In common with the discussion we had to build the Castle Gateway brief, there was an interest in access to food and drink:

‘I am not against cafes having tables out here and people drinking tea. But it’s the add ons, the next steps, the music events.’

‘I am in favour of cafe tables out here, but would it be temporary and seasonal’.

‘It would be wonderful to have a ‘summer temporary pavilion’ like the Serpentine Gallery, that could be used as Gallery and pop up restaurant and change every year.
that the Pavilion could be a commercial enterprise, hopefully being self-financing’ (via Facebook)

‘I’m a huge fan of the Arts Barge and definitely would love to see them incorporated in the plans along the gardens, it’s a perfect way to activate the space and in a way that’s not just for tourists but incorporates local residents as well’. (via email)

I do think a “light” pavilion (this could even be an inexpensive off the shelf product) alongside Skeldergate bridge; ideally with an occupiable roof/ viewing platform accessible from the bridge itself (this would be more expensive) could be a good addition. It could be used for info and toilet facilities, food service, and even seasonal rental of small non-motorized boats for recreation. I would hope that kind of structure could be built without touching the bridge (I’m sure there are heritage concerns) and with minimal impact on a majority of the large canopy trees, which it would be great to keep (provided they’re healthy, etc). I also really recommend a plan for planting/ management of the Gardens as some of those trees come down, since I think at least a few of them are getting near the end of their life.  (via email)

Before the event we went into Tower Vue Café and afterwards went into Dyls to talk to their owners. Both would be interested in the possibility of extending outwards with further tables and chairs. Dyls are already are open until 11pm.

War Memorial
One idea in the masterplan was to move the war memorial. In common with the feedback to the idea during the masterplan ideas engagement period [link], this was welcomed:

‘I think the idea of moving the war memorial to Tower Gardens is a good one, no one can see it on the roundabout’.

A very common theme from all discussions about Tower Gardens was benches.

‘If we compare it with Museum Gardens, people do stop here but there are not enough benches’.

‘More benches would be good’.

‘There is nowhere for school groups to sit currently’

Throughout there was a sense that a challenge was maintenance and a design question for the future of the gardens is how to ensure that, in Dave Meigh’s terms, ‘we are not making future work’. The context here, of course, being large cuts to local government funding.

‘If it’s going to be used better, it needs to be maintained’

‘There is no need to change Tower Gardens, but there is a chronic lack of maintenance’

‘I come here everyday to pick up rubbish. People at night come here to eat take ways and then throw it on the ground. The Council come only once a week’.

‘We walk through everyday and we noticed that the leaves were not gathered. Then the Council came too late, after the leaves had become sodden mass and tried to use leaf blowers. The leaves had already become very slippery on the paths’.

‘There are issues with lights not working – they have been reported but nothing has been done’.

‘There needs to be more cleaning off afterward flooding, there is a big sack of mud and shit’.

Christian from the Arts Barge said, ‘In collaboration with Friends of New Walk, the Arts Barge could help organise volunteers to help keep the gardens better. I’m not saying the Friends don’t do a good job, just that we’re quite good at mobilising groups of people’.

One person noted that there will be a vote on Council Tax and this is directly relevant to how much money there is to spend on maintenance of parks – although it’s a complex political issue.

Next steps:

We will pass on the key urgent maintenance issues (namely lights not working) to Dave Meigh.

Then a range of other questions were raised that need other kind of work:

In terms of cleaning up after floods, we will ask the Council:
How much difference does it make not being able to sweep the silt off the side easily?
Is there any issue that the hoses damage the grass further?

In terms of flood we will ask the Environment Agency:
How much water does Tower Gardens absorb and does this make a difference to managing flooding on the Ouse? Would further paving in Tower Gardens increase flooding down stream? Could this be balanced by creation of deliberate ponding?

In terms of geese, we will ask Dave Meigh and Yorkshire Wildlife Trust:
How can we control the geese? Or limit their impact? Or live with them better? Could there be an Edible York bed that was geese proof?

In terms of the grass recovery from flooding:
How much difference does shading from the trees make?

In terms of tree management:
What kinds of tree management (pruning and pollarding) would help increase sunlight to the park?
What would an incremental natural strategy look like?

In terms of planting in the garden:
What kinds of plants could be chosen to cope better with the conditions?

In terms of activities:
Can we experiment short term with more tables and chairs in the gardens linked to the two existing cafes?
Can we experiment with the temporary pavilion idea (as has already happened with the Arts Barge Riverside Festival) to see what difference this might make to the use of the space?
Can we increase the number of benches short term to see what difference that makes?

We will then bring together this collective feedback and open up for discussion what the next steps in a conversation about Tower Gardens might be.

3 thoughts on “Tower Gardens: What would make you want to spend more time here?”

  1. I’m a bit concerned about adding too much stuff in this area. For me the important function of Tower Gardens is to pass through. In the summer you spend a lot of time in York weaving around bottle necks of people. I find this stressful, particularly when walking or running about. Tower Gardens is currently a place that widens up and relieves this stress. I like the current uses and am looking forward to the Arts Barge, but worry that any further additions to Tower Gardens would make the space feel cluttered.

    • Thanks Laura, noted. It is a challenge to make the gardens a good thoroughfare and a place to spend time. We’ll be doing more about the landscaping in due course and hope to experiment a bit with different uses to help us understand these different uses and how they combine better. We’ll keep you in touch with further events!

  2. I love this area. I find in summer we can not stop anywhere to sit and eat because of the geese so we end up going to museum gardens. It’s a really beautiful area, I’m just put off by my child getting bitten by geese for her lunch 🙂


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